'South Africans must just respect each other'- rights commissioner's wish for 2019

One of the Western Cape SAHRC's commissioners Chris Nissen  (Jenni Evans, News24)
One of the Western Cape SAHRC's commissioners Chris Nissen (Jenni Evans, News24)

Western Cape SA Human Rights Commissioner Chris Nissen's greatest wish for South Africa for 2019 is that everyone enjoys respect and human dignity. 

"We are like a see-saw. Today we are high. Tomorrow we are very low," he said in a rare break from crossing the province to investigate complaints.  

"South Africans must just respect each other," he implores.

This advice applies to everybody - from those who make derogatory remarks at a braai, to the government official who makes people wait three months and demands endless emails just to fix a water problem. 

For the commissioner and his small team of legal advisors, administrators and people who help record written complaints, 2018 was a year of rushing.

They received 200 complaints about access to water alone and went to at least 50 different protests.

"If I get a call at 22:00 at night, I must go," he says. 

"One must never underestimate the validity or legitimacy of a protest."

He says that although 2018 could be seen as a year of "frustration and anger", through the human rights prism, it was also a year of "wins". 

One of these "wins" was to hear that the Bo-Kaap in Cape Town might be declared a heritage zone after concerns raised by residents over construction there.

READ: SAHRC conducts court-ordered Bo-Kaap visit following protests over developers

Another "win" is the markedly changing attitudes of some municipal managers who have stopped being annoyed and frightened by the swells of protesters outside their offices. They are now sitting down with protesters to talk about solutions.

"They (municipal managers) are not scared to deal with issues," Nissen said of the changing attitudes of local authorities.

"They say: 'I have to cut down to do this. Must I build a hall or must I build the houses?'"

But there are still councillors, local government officials and ward committees who are either isolated from their own communities, or who are dysfunctional. 

Another "win" was the introduction of the SA Police Service's Anti-Gang Unit, which many in the province have been begging for. 

WATCH: Here's what the Anti-Gang Unit has achieved since its implementation

Other victories include getting businesses and schools in the Helderberg region to continue renaming premises from the current "Hottentots Holland", a moniker considered highly offensive. 

The commission is currently also working on getting SA National Parks to have the name of that entire Hottentots Holland mountain range officially changed.

This was also the year the Equality Court found a pastor, Oscar Bougardt, in violation of an agreement with the commission to not make any derogatory remarks about LGBTQI people. 

Nissen said the commission planned to do more work in 2019 on the rights of people who identified as LGBTQI.

The commission also helped facilitate South Africa's participation in the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

This protocol, when applied, will inform the rights and responsibilities regarding anybody who is in any form of custody - whether it be a police cell or a mental health institution.

The Constitutional Court has also asked the commission to monitor places where foreign nationals are held in custody in South Africa, and this protocol will become helpful there too. 

He also hails as a "win" the SA Police Service's changed attitude, saying they were more willing to facilitate communication during community protests.

Visits by Police Minister Bheki Cele this year to angered communities during the #shutdown protests is an example of this improved response time to grievances over crime.

He reserves a special mention for what he calls the "Heilbron Method". This is a tribute to the Overstrand Cluster Commander Brigadier Donovan Heilbron's "talk first" approach whenever a protest flares up.

"The poor know you can't do magic. But I hear them say: 'At least listen to us'," he said.

He also commends the mayor of Cape Town Dan Plato and Premier Helen Zille for always being "a phone call away" when there are problems the commission needs assistance with.

Although 2019 will kick off with checks on schools to make sure children get their places at a desk, it will also be a time of preparing for the elections, expected in May.

"Many promises will be made," said Nissen. "But the most important thing is that even if we disagree with one another, we need to respect each other's position and we must defend each other's right to disagree and be different from us."

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